Review: A Modern Modernist (a review of Stills by Mark Parsons)

By Hugh Blanton

If you look up the term literary modernism—whether it be in an encyclopedia, dictionary, or Google—you will find sundry and varied definitions and even varying time frames in which it supposedly occurred. (Some saying that it's been dead and buried for decades now.) The one constant in this thing called "modernism" is that it is the upper level of the high brow where only those scribblers with skill and talent tread and toil—regardless of when. Some without skill and talent have made the attempt to be modernists, but succeeded only in making poor imitations of their antecedent heroes. Finding a capable modern modernist is a nearly futile endeavor. Now an uberpoet has appeared—an original pushing language for all it's worth.

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Stills is the debut collection of poetry from Mark Parsons. Parsons is a veteran poet and as to why he waited until now to publish a collection is anyone's guess. In the introduction Parsons compares the speaker in these poems to Henry, the speaker in John Berryman's high modernist Dream Songs. The speaker here, however "is a cipher to name and register the world, an extension of the poet's soul."
Parsons has a knack for creating vivid images in the mind of the reader. As he writes of being driven down a Hawaiian road through lush vegetation he notes that the television show Magnum P.I. was produced "here on this island, the ludicrous image of giant Tom Selleck/ peering over his Ferrari's tiny sloping windshield." In the poem "Your Face Burns My Hands" he observes a woman cutting her own hair: "A rind of white where the woman/ has cut away around her ear, she gathers a long tress/ off her collar." In another instance, waking up from sleep, he notices "pinpricks of sun/ spilled on wooden floorboards..." Parsons is a poet cocksure of his gifts, his affair with the muse hot and heavy.
The first thing a critic does when he reads a poet who declares his poems are not confessional is go find the confessional poems—they are almost always there. Parsons tells us these poems are not confessional—and he's right, there's nothing here that fits under that broad umbrella. It's one of the reasons the book's publisher, Southernmost Books, calls this collection a nod to the New York School of poetry. In Parsons' poem "Caravan" there are echoes of New York School poet Frank O'Hara:
            Somewhere beyond this darkness you believe
            is light, and you are here, at the predawn center,
            waiting for day to ascend panoramic
            urban skyline
            circumscribed like the view
            from the bottom of an abandoned well.
The (almost iambic) pentameter at the beginning of the verse goes nearly unnoticed due to the unforced nature of it, and in fact is likely indeliberate much the same as many O'Hara poems ("Augustus," "Dolce Colloquio" among others).
"Why do we read poetry?" is a question professors and workshop leaders often ask to confound their charges and it's asked without any real expectation of an answer. We read poetry hoping for some surprise, some delight; to find use of language that we haven't encountered before. To be forced to think about what we're reading, something beyond just turning a page to see what happens next. Good poetry is a place where ambiguity becomes welcome as it stimulates one to ponder what lurks beneath the surface, or maybe if there is something beneath the surface. In one of the poems here titled "Untitled" he describes himself sitting on hold on the phone as a woman wanting his attention prepares their steaks for dinner. "What an asshole," she says while the man sits with phone to ear. Who's the asshole here—the man in front of her with a phone in his ear or the person on the other end keeping him waiting?
The poems here are serious and thought provoking, but not completely devoid of humor.
            like the baby harp seal in an animal-rights campaign,
            the charcoal eyes and nose stuck on the pinched-off end of a curving
            white loaf like a soft serve turd...
Parsons once remarked that if an open mic organizer tells him he's not welcome to read ever again, he knows he did it right. It wouldn't be hard to imagine an emcee ushering him off the stage after reading the above aloud.
Poetry is supposed to show us what language can do. Just like pistons and camshafts are used to make the engine of a Chevette, they are also used to make the engine of a Lamborghini. Parsons is a high-powered poet, skilled and precise. These poems are more driven than designed, giving them a spontaneity that forces the reader to drop expectation. Stillsrises above the dismal work of bland social commentary that passes for poetry today; the bleating over climate, race, sex/gender, etc. T.S. Eliot once said, "The existing order is complete before the new work arrives." Hopefully Parsons has put a tombstone on the existing order today. It is the lot of critics to overrate debut collections, or anything that seems new. But Parsons just may have the world looking forward to poetry once again.

Hugh Blanton's latest book is Kentucky Outlaw. He can be reached on X @HughBlanton5